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Hiromu Arakawa’s beloved manga Fullmetal Alchemist is the latest Japanese work to join an ever-growing niche in entertainment: live-action adaptations. Gintama, Bleach, Tokyo Ghoul, Ghost in the Shell, Attack on Titan, and Vampire Knight are just some of the many popular titles brought back into the spotlight. And most of them of have underperformed at the box office.
Set in the fictional European-inspired country of Amestri, Fullmetal Alchemist follows the journey of two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric. They become state alchemists to find the Philosopher’s Stone and undo the horrific incident that took Alphonse’s body away.
Previously adapted twice as an animated TV show—Fullmetal Alchemist (2003) and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (2009)—the live-action film had a lot to live up to. Although not quite the disaster of previous manga adaptations, the film still falls short of the original story.
The film gets off to a sudden start that barely introduces who the Elric brothers are and glosses over why they’re even renowned in the first place. No time is spent on world building or even explaining the premise of the story. Nor does it present the larger themes on the national conflict between religion and science.
Meanwhile, the film could’ve done away with (and probably saved some budget on) the opening scene when Al and Ed are whisked away on doors like it’s the Wizard of Oz.
Changes to the high-octane fight scenes and heavy use of alchemy make sense with the limitations of live-action. But other changes, like the retconning of Dr. Marcoh’s death, make no sense. Popular and important moments are swapped out for unnecessary sequences that add nothing.
The film’s character switches—like Maes Hughes recognizing Lust as Mustang and Barry sowing doubt in Al—cut down the story’s emotional weight and moments that show off each character’s unique qualities.
It is further bogged down by inconsistencies between the film and original source. Dr. Marcoh is killed with nary a mention of the National Central Library and a very brief mention of his work on the Philosopher’s Stone. Yes, that red stone mentioned at the beginning of the film that Ed was looking for is tossed aside until the last 30 minutes or so.
The importance of the Philosopher’s Stone is downplayed, even though it’s the literal backbone of the story and the cause of much of the conflict happening throughout Amestri.
The core and context of Fullmetal Alchemist being scrubbed away also weakens the relationships that made the anime and manga so strong. These issues are further compounded by the fact that quite a few important characters don’t make an appearance in the film. A character like Major Armstrong missing is not something I’d argue, but when someone like King Bradley fails to appear, it’s glaring.
The female characters also deviate significantly from their much stronger portrayals in the anime and manga. Winry’s tough bravado is reduced as she becomes a female sidekick. Riza Hawkeye’s name and marksmanship abilities are never mentioned, despite her being in multiple scenes.
Despite its flaws, the live-action Fullmetal Alchemist manages to capture the right aesthetics with its cinematography and costumes. The acting is decent, despite a few cringe-worthy moments. And Fullmetal Alchemist is admittedly a complex work and a bold choice for a live-action adaptation. But the narrative is completely thrown out of whack by poor storytelling decisions that pull plot points from all over the timeline with little explanation.
Ultimately, this film lacks the emotional balance and sociopolitical elements that made Fullmetal Alchemist such a cult classic among anime fans. A final scene at the end leaves room for a possible sequel, and if greenlit, the storytelling could use some serious work.
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Danielle Ransom is a journalist who has worked as a researcher for CNN, NBC's KXAN-TV, CBS' KEYE-TV.